The art of political U-Turns
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The art of political U-Turns

The political U-turn of 2003-2005 is one of the most resounding legacies of late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, looming over Israel’s present politics.

The political U-turn of 2003-2005 is one of the most resounding legacies of late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, looming over Israel’s present politics. In 2001 he declared that the future of Netzarim, then a small settlement at the heart of the Gaza strip, would be the same as Tel Aviv's. In 2005 he presided over full Israeli civilian and military withdrawal from Gaza, Netzarim included. The debate about Sharon's legacy, between his supporters and detesters, was largely shaped by that historic act of politics and leadership.

Arial Sharon was not the first leader in history to take a political U-turn. France’s Charles De Gaulle, Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev and Egypt’s Anwar Sadat are other examples of leaders who took their nations on an opposite path from that which brought them to power: De Gaulle was elected in 1958 to keep Algeria French, but severed the ties between the two nations by 1962; Gorbachev was originally appointed to protect the Soviet Union and the Soviet Block, but eventually led their dismantling ; and Sadat took Soviet-backed Egypt away from the unyielding adversity with Israel to a peaceful coexistence with it and a strategic alliance with the USA. All of these U-turns took several years to materialize, stemmed from a clear vision and required a remarkable level of personal and political courage, composure and determination, political skills, ruthlessness and executive capacity.

Nothing in politics is as risky as a U-turn and as challenging as a successful one. It requires a gradual disengagement from the greatest supporters, who slowly turn into staunchest enemies, while forming a new coalition of backers, made up of former opponents. In a cautious dance of two-steps-forward-one-step-back U-turning leaders must shift their political center of gravity from the former base to their future platform.

That challenge of political U-turning stems from the contradictions inherent to positions of power. Allegedly, people with ‘authority’ have the mandate to ‘lead’, yet they are often measured by their ability to stand their ground despite opposition and change. Prof. Ronald Heifetz of Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership shows in Leadership Without Easy Answers that both claims are true: people are elected or appointed to lead on others based on the mandate they sought and was given to them, and not to lead on those who gave them the power. Hence, Sharon’s supporters wanted him to stand for the right of Israel and Jews to live in Gaza and to bolster Israel’s settlements there, and not to dismantle them. Similarly, his predecessor, Prime Minister Ehud Barak, was elected to achieve peace with the Palestinians, and not to become a war-time leader. Not surprisingly, Sharon's greatest critics are from the right, while Barak's are from the left.

The tension between what leaders promise during the campaign for their election and the policies they forge is inevitable and permanent. In Israel, it generally takes thousands of party members to get elected to the parliament, the support of tens of thousands to become a party chair and hundreds of thousands to become a major force in the Knesset. Many of these constituents operate out of short-term sectarian and populist motivations. Meanwhile, the ruling coalition represents at least two million adult Israelis and the position of the Prime Minister forces upon its beholder to consider the needs of seven million Israelis, millions of Diaspora Jews, and sometimes even take a general view of humanity, from a broad historical and societal perspective.

Furthermore, the pace of technological, economic and societal change is rising, while political systems are generally conservative, risk-averse, consensus-based and bureaucratic, consequently ever slow and ineffective in their response. Thus, even if a political mandate was perfectly crafted upon the appointment, unpredicted political and economic turmoil may challenge the leader to explore previously inconceivable paths. Some politicians face this painful truth upon their election, while other, the cynical ones, are fully aware of it well beforehand. In other words, the number of political U-turns will inevitably increase in a world that is unprecedentedly vibrant.

A leadership U-turn is a perilous maneuver that is tested by politics and history. Most leaders are killed off or physically assassinated by their own supporters before completing the U-turn they embarked upon. Others, like Mikhail Gorbachev, become irrelevant in the new world they created. Few, such as De Gaulle, manage to regain broad support even after the transformation has been made.

The test of history is different. It seems now that De Gaulle saved France, Gorbachev was one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century, and Sadat allowed Egypt decades of security and economic development. While it is too early to assess Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza in the same historic hindsight, it is a matter of fact that subsequent governments repeatedly declined to retake control of the Gaze Strip during the multiple rounds of escalation since 2005.

Every leader of state lives between statesmanship and politics. One hour they are dealing with a national security threat, and in the other they are meeting a pollster or dealing with party politics. In some cases the politician supports the statesman, and sometimes it’s the other way around. A political U-turn brings these tensions and synergies to a boiling point, and the mastery of this fine political art is crucial for every leader, particularly those who are determined to ensure the prosperity and security of their nations. While that is a general truth about politics nowadays, is particularly true in Israel. No other developed nation faces such permanent adversity and exceptional volatility. Therefore, no other developed nation is likely to repeatedly and acutely need such masterful leadership.